The Caterer and Hotelkeeper Interview – Silla Bjerrum

28 August 2012 by
The Caterer and Hotelkeeper Interview – Silla Bjerrum

Silla Bjerrum is part of the movement that brought sushi to the mainstream. Her business, Feng Sushi, began as a take-away concept, but following Luke Johnson's involvement it's now evolving to include more dine-in venues. She tells Emily Manson how attitides to sushi have changed and why responsible sourcing is so important

How did you end up in sushi?
I landed in it by coincidence. I'd lived in London before, but returned in 1994 to do a masters degree in sociology. I was looking for a part-time job and, through friends, got a job with Nippon Tuk. I'd never tried sushi before but, being Danish, as a child I'd loved open sandwiches, and the connections with food are similar. I fell in love with it and picked up the skills gradually.

I was given a lot of freedom, and after six months I was allowed to do lunches. After that I started working with Robin Birley on sandwiches [Birley's] and spent two years on an industrial estate in Battersea, where I learnt a huge amount about how to structure organisations. Then Jeremy Rose asked me to become a partner in Feng Sushi in 1999.

How did you start Feng Sushi?
I was always given a lot of responsibility and was happy to take it on. At Nippon Tuk, I was working for two eccentric Englishmen and I was young and quite energetic and showed initiative so they gave me a lot of room.

I was earning really good money, working long hours, but not really part of the business. When I came in as partner in 1999 I took responsibility for the kitchen: setting it up, the food safety, the people, the packaging, the suppliers and so on. I'm not from a cheffy background, and it was a challenge, but you learn on the job and it was really fun.

With eight outlets now, what's been the key to Feng Sushi's success?

Our attention to detail: the sourcing and seasonality of our menu and the fact we are always trying to evolve the product by continually coming up with new ideas. Delivering to people's houses is also key; there are lots of busy people in London who really appreciate a good-quality product being brought to their door.

You now also have the outside catering and sushi school. How else has the company changed since its launch?
We are now focusing on improving the eat-in experience. We started as a delivery company and now we've got eat-in. It's taken us a long time to shake off the delivery-only image, but the launch of West Hampstead has a whole new design, with the dispatch and delivery side completely taken out of the front-of-house space to make the eat-in area more cosy and coherent. We still want to be the market leader of delivery, but also want to attract a good eat-in trade.

How has Luke Johnson changed the business? What's been his biggest influence?
He's changed the company a lot. He came in at a time when we'd had a couple of tough years behind us and needed a breath of fresh air. Luke could see the potential of the business and came in and supported us. We'd had very little investment for a couple of years and he supported us with finance for the refurbishment of all the stores as well as the relaunch of the website, which we did last February.

Online orders now represent almost 30% of our business, up from 14% before the upgrade. But he's also brought connections and business discipline. He spotted the areas of weakness and then supported those areas without meddling in the other bits.

Were you nervous about him coming on board?
The business had always had a family atmosphere and I was nervous that when I got investment someone would change that and also say you shouldn't do sushi like this but like that, but he hasn't done that. What he hasn't been is interfering. He's let me carry on with the suppliers and taking care of the product, which is my strength. It's a great relief to wake up in the morning and not have to worry, knowing the business is in a safe place and that you can concentrate on running it.

So what's the plan now?
The launch of West Hampstead took a lot longer than planned as the lease negotiations took forever, but we are now in a good position to open up more stores and will be working on the next project this year. We've spent a lot of time putting a structure in place, getting a strong senior team around me and enhancing what we have. It's a complicated product and we need to open at a comfortable pace where we can oversee it and ensure that we have consistency.

In the 13 years you've been running Feng Sushi the market has totally changed. Has this made your job harder or easier?
This country has had the most amazing food decade-and-a-half. When we started it was only AB1s who had eaten "raw fish" on their travels, now sushi is an accepted snack and restaurant genre and kids love it. It's the norm for a new generation. The mindset has totally shifted and sushi is here to stay.

There have been a lot of new brands and product offerings and I don't think that's a bad thing. In fact, it reflects that this is a massively growing market which is ripe for expansion. As the bigger brands go in, you can see where the market is going, although I do see Feng Sushi as the slightly better-quality product. We're "everyday luxury" - it's not unrealistic to get a sushi box delivered once a week for £12.

Where do you go from here?
Our focus has always been on delivery, and we're not going to take our eye off the ball on that one, but we do want to improve the eat-in business. We've invested in chairs now and also put a lot of effort into training front of house properly so we can take this side of the business forward in the right way.

Sustainability has always been a key part of your business. What drives you to do this?
It's always been core to the business and I've always focused mainly on the sourcing of fish - and the seasonality of fish, which is lesser-known. I just think it's right from a moral point of view, and my business ethic is to have sustainable fish and other ingredients across the board.

We try to use UK-produced vegetables - although avocados are difficult - local milk and ice-cream. It's the fun part of the business to me, not a chore. I adore seeing suppliers, finding out what's new and trying to figure out what people will want to eat and developing products to match that.

How does your Danish background influence your concept and the development of your products?
It's obviously not specifically Nordic but there is a Nordic angle. There are some similarities, from the focus on wood, craftsmanship and streamlined look to the healthy lifestyle and food traditions of the region. We try and utilise these as best we can to complement each other.

How have you adapted the business to cope with the ongoing recession?

You're based solely in London. Is there a market beyond?
I think there is, and it's definitely something we'll be considering in 2014, but for now we think there's still a lot of opportunity in London. We're already looking at the next project site - somewhere like Chiswick, Putney, Clapham, Islington or Shoreditch.

What's been your biggest achievement?
To run the best sushi delivery service in the UK.

What's been your worst business mistake?
The second year of Feng Sushi I employed a lot of Danish people, young people who had just arrived in the country. Overnight I was not only their boss, but their social services, agony aunt, etc. It was like running an au pair agency in the end.

What's the most important piece of business advice you've learnt?
A premier product is key to a successful business. However, good service and customer relations are paramount for repeat business and you cannot rely solely on the quality of your food.

Sushi and sustainability

Although planning to be an academic, Bjerrum took a job at Japanese eaterie Nippon Tuk in 1994 and fell in love with sushi. Her flair as a chef led her to co-found Feng Sushi with Jeremy Rose in 1999.

There are now eight restaurants in the Feng Sushi group, which offer a modern interpretation of sushi with a strong emphasis on sustainable produce.

Bjerrum was the first woman to be invited to the prestigious Seven Samurai Sushi Competition in 2008 (she also judged the competition two years running in 2003-05), she teaches at Leith's, Divertimenti and Billingsgate and speaks regularly about sushi and sustainability.

Feng Sushi is a founding member of the Sustainable Restaurant Association, founding member of the Fish2Fork Chef Club and recently won a Sustainable City Award 2011-12 in the food category.

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